Senate

Senate blocks dueling coronavirus relief plans

The Senate on Thursday blocked dueling plans to provide hundreds of billions of dollars to help small businesses contend with the coronavirus-fueled economic meltdown amid a stalemate over the scope of the package.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to pass an additional $250 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. 

“The country cannot afford unnecessary wrangling. … The country needs us to be nimble,” McConnell said from the Senate floor on Thursday. “My colleagues must not treat working Americans as political hostages. … We cannot play games with this crisis”

But Democrats objected, with Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) referring to it as a “political stunt.”

“The majority leader knew full well that there was not agreement and consensus,” Van Hollen said, saying the GOP proposal as drafted was “designed to fail.”

Instead, Democrats tried to offer their own alternative to amend the GOP plan to include $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments and an expansion of food assistance, in addition to the small-business funding. Republicans, similarly, rejected the Democratic measure.

The partisan impasse throws the small-business funds into limbo until at least Monday, when the Senate is next expected to be in session. McConnell told reporters after the back-and-forth on the floor that discussions would continue but did not specifically say that he would try for a second time on Monday to pass the small business funding.

Because lawmakers were trying to clear their plans by unanimous consent — allowing leadership to avoid bringing back members during the middle of a pandemic — any one senator could block the money.  

The Senate included $350 billion for the small-business program as part of a massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress late last month. As of Wednesday afternoon, approximately $90 billion in loans had been approved, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers during a conference call.

But administration officials and lawmakers quickly acknowledged that more money was likely to be needed as banks across the country say they’ve received a mountain of applications from small businesses, contractors and “gig” workers impacted by the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The Treasury Department sent Congress a formal request for an additional $250 billion on Tuesday, and McConnell quickly said he would try to pass it within days. 

But Democrats appeared blindsided by McConnell’s decision to try to pass the funding on Tuesday. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that McConnell had not consulted with Democrats before announcing his plan. 

“This unanimous consent request was not negotiated,” Cardin said on Thursday before blocking the GOP offer. “It’s not going to be enacted. The majority leader knows that.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer unveiled their counterproposal on Wednesday morning. It would have included an additional $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments and a 15 percent increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding. 

Schumer also discussed the request on Wednesday with Mnuchin, who helped negotiate the first three bills. Cardin noted that he and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, are scheduled to talk to Mnuchin this week. 

Mnuchin told CNBC on Thursday that Trump is “willing to talk” about more money for hospitals and states in the fourth coronavirus bill. The small-business funding is viewed as an “interim” bill between the $2.2 trillion legislation and a “phase four” proposal.

In addition to the extra funding, some Democrats also called to simplify the Paycheck Protection Program, which faced a rocky rollout last week amid confusion about the requirements to apply for the assistance.

“Yes, we need more money for this program. But for goodness sakes, let’s take the opportunity to make some bipartisan fixes to allow this program to work better for the very people it’s designed to help,” Van Hollen said on Thursday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also called for a streamlining, saying small-business owners “have been put through hell over the past two weeks.”

Republicans and the White House scoffed at calls to broaden the package, accusing Democrats of playing politics amid a health and economic crisis. 

“The ink barely dry on the $2.2 trillion dollar Cares Act, money largely not yet out the door (except for PPP), and Schumer and Pelosi to seek more spending for spending’s sake. We need to make sure what we have already done works as intended. Then, fill the gaps,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, tweeted Thursday. 

McConnell said Thursday that there was “no chance” that the Democratic proposal, which he characterized as “sprawling,” could pass Congress this week. Even if it did, he indicated that it does not have the White House’s support.

“The president has already indicated that he would not sign it,” McConnell said.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said while the Democratic request to provide half of the new $250 billion to smaller lenders was a “good goal,” it was “unworkable” because it would create a “new pool of money.” 

Even if the Senate had been able to pass the bill on Thursday, it faced an uncertain timeline in the House. Democratic leaders had hoped to pass the new funding as soon as Friday by consent or a voice vote, allowing them to avoid bringing back members. But Pelosi said during an interview with NPR that the GOP bill could not get unanimous consent in her chamber. 

“The bill that they put forth doesn’t have, will not get unanimous support in the House. It just won’t,” Pelosi said. 

And Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) signaled that he was preparing to require a quorum, forcing a majority of the House to come back. He used a similar tactic late last month on the third coronavirus package, sparking ire from his colleagues and Trump, who referred to him as “third rate.”

“Once again, they’re recommending that just let Nancy Pelosi pass it on her own, that we could all stay home. And I’m saying that’s not going to fly, doesn’t fly with the Constitution, doesn’t fly for accountability to the taxpayers,” Massie said during an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox Business.

Updated at 11:25 a.m.

Tags Ben Cardin Charles Schumer Chris Van Hollen Coronavirus Elizabeth Warren Jeff Merkley John Cornyn Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Ron Wyden Steven Mnuchin Thomas Massie

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